Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel has taken victory at the Australian Grand Prix, beating Mercedes favourite Lewis Hamilton by ten seconds after an impressive strategy call by the Italian team.
All eyes were on Albert Park for the opening race of the 2017 F1 season, and after a tight qualifying on Saturday many felt there would be a fight for the race. They were ultimately proven right as Vettel was able to drive a perfectly judged race to claim the first victory for Ferrari since the Singapore Grand Prix in 2015. It was however Ferrari’s strategy, and a bad call by Mercedes, that gifted Vettel the victory.
A third of the way through the race Mercedes sealed their fate when they pitted Hamilton early. While Vettel ran long on his first stint, Hamilton was told it was “race critical” to pass the Red Bull of Max Verstappen immediately after his early stop, but was unable to do so. Vettel pulled out enough of a gap that when he pitted eventually five laps later, he came out just ahead of Verstappen and the boxed up Hamilton. Replays showed Mercedes boss Toto Wolff punching his desk in the team’s garage in frustration, realising there was very little the team could do now.
Once Verstappen eventually pitted and released Hamilton, Vettel was already five seconds clear of the Mercedes. The team did briefly consider switching to a “Plan B” which would have been a two stop strategy, but Mercedes opted to stay on their original strategy and follow home the Ferrari to the chequered flag. Accepting they simply did not have an answer to the pace of the Ferrari in race trim. While throughout the race Hamilton voiced his frustrations with the tyres and grip levels, suggesting he was not comfortable in the car at all.
“We were worried about the undercut possibility,” Wolff said after the race. “We knew we would come out behind Max and Kimi and that’s what happened. Ferrari played it very well.”
Hamilton’s team mate Valtteri Bottas had a good debut for Mercedes, scoring a third place podium and looking at times like he was up for a fight with Hamilton. While the other Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen had an incredibly quiet and lonely race, finishing a distant fourth. The result does mean that Ferrari are now leading the Constructors championship for the first time in the new hybrid era.
It was a less positive day for Red Bull, Verstappen salvaged fifth for the team in a rather uncompetitive looking Red Bull. While home boy Daniel Ricciardo fell foul to the Aussie curse, that an Australian is not allowed to do well at their home Grand Prix. Ricciardo was handed a five place grid penalty for a gearbox change following his crash in Q3, things quickly went from bad to worse though as his car suffered a break-down on his first lap out of the pits before the race. The car was brought back to the pits and the team eventually got the car going, albeit two laps down. Ricciardo’s misery was finally brought to a merciful end though when the engine of his RB13 expired with twenty laps remaining.
Elsewhere, Felipe Massa took sixth place for Williams ahead of the Force India of Sergio Perez in seventh. Carlos Sainz was eight for Toro Rosso ahead of Daniil Kvyat in ninth, who had to pit a few laps from the end to fill up the pneumatic system on the engine. Esteban Ocon rounds out the top ten, scoring both a point on his debut race for Force India as well as his first point in Formula 1.
As for McLaren it was an agonising day for Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard had been running inside the top ten till the suspension on his McLaren let him down and he was forced to retire with just a handful of laps remaining.
Overall the race was interesting, though as usual from Albert Park, it was not the most electrifying race. The street nature of the track means it is hard to overtake, so strategy often counts for more round here. As well as this there’s normally a high attrition rate due to first race teething problems, though uncharacteristically there was no safety car this year. Despite this, the race did show us we may have a fight for the championship this year. The Mercedes does not run well in dirty air at all, and today even once they were out of it they simply did not have the pace of the Ferrari. Compared to last season where we would often see a large gap even after the first lap from the Mercedes to the car behind, Vettel was around a second behind Hamilton. And once he was released there was no stopping Vettel. Proving perhaps that Ferrari have got something up their sleeves in the fight with Mercedes. OM Team Manager Jordan Groves seems to think so, although he is remaining cautions, seeing as this is only the first race of the season. “Cautiously optimistic after Melbourne. Great to see Ferrari take the fight to Mercedes, just hoping it can last throughout the season.” Personally I agree with Jordan, while it has been interesting at times to watch the Mercedes drivers fight one another for the championship the last three seasons, some competition from another team is long overdue. And if Ferrari can carry on this impressive race pace and continue to challenge Mercedes, we could have a brilliant season on our hands.
I’ll leave you now with my highlight of the weekend, and after watching Sebastian Vettel leapfrog Lewis Hamilton in the pit stops, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff could not hide his anger and disappointment. I hope the desk is okay after the attack from Terror Toto!
Australian Grand Prix Race Result
1. Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari, 1:24:11.670
2. Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes,
3. Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes,
4. Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari,
5. Max Verstappen, Red Bull,
6. Felipe Massa, Williams,
7. Sergio Perez, Force India, +1 lap
8. Carlos Sainz, Toro Rosso, + 1 lap
9. Daniil Kvyat, Toro Rosso, + 1 lap
10. Esteban Ocon, Force India, +1 lap
11. Nico Hulkenberg, Renault, + 1 lap
12. Antonio Giovinazzi, Sauber, +2 laps
13. Stoffel Vandoorne, McLaren, +2 laps
14. Fernando Alonso, McLaren, DNF
15. Kevin Magnussen, Haas, DNF
16. Lance Stroll, Williams, DNF
17. Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull, DNF
18. Marcus Ericsson, Sauber, DNF
19. Jolyon Palmer, Renault, DNF
20. Romain Grosjean, Haas DNF
Feature Image Credit: Scuderia Ferrari F1 Press Release